Mark Franke: Let students rewrite Constitution?

A government professor at Skidmore College in upstate New York recently wrote an op-ed that was carried in my local newspaper. My wife recommended the column to me since it was about one of my favorite subjects — the United States Constitution.

This professor, Beau Breslin, argues that our Constitution is outdated and doesn’t reflect opinions prevalent in today’s society. Specifically, it does not reflect the beliefs of the iGen’ers — people in their mid-20s and younger. If I understand his point, he contends that the Constitution should reflect the majoritarian view of the present time as these are the people who must live under it.

And he believes that the iGen’ers, the group most representative of college students, should be given a chance to rewrite our Constitution to construct a polity more suited to their philosophy. He would send them to Philadelphia to give it their best shot.

I can sympathize with this suggestion, at least to an extent. I was there myself 50 or so years ago, a member of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), the conservative-libertarian alternative to the left-wing radicalism of the time. We decided one day, or rather late one night, to write the perfect constitution for a student fraternity.

This constitution was packed with every political science theory and historical precedent we could recall … and more than a dollop of nonsense. No one, not even we ourselves, took us seriously. No matter; we were quite proud of our efforts at irrelevancy.

Therein lies the practical objection to the Skidmore proposal. Putting a bunch of inexperienced, self-indulgent young people in a room will produce a constitution as unworkable as our erstwhile effort at fraternity-building.

The more serious objection is that Breslin’s premise rests on an assumption which is dangerous to democracy — that the majority should always get its way regardless. One of the fissures at the Constitutional Convention was between large and small states. No document emerged until the small states were satisfied that their interests and liberties would be protected. The Electoral College, the last compromise reached, is a case in point.

Yet, in this professor’s mind, this current generation should not only have a right to rewrite the Constitution, it should be the only one allowed to do so. Youth should be a time for unfettered thought processes producing ideas that may be irrational, unreasonable and hardly practical in the real world. But there must be adults in the room. By adults I mean those who have lived more than a decade or two with real world responsibilities like jobs, families and mortgages.

By all means, give them their heads. Maybe they will come up with an ingenious constitution for our nation. Just don’t bet that individual liberty will be the guiding principle for this new enlightened effort at self-government.

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to [email protected]